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Fashion freedom gives shoe biz a kick

American women have developed a shoe fetish. Sales of women's footwear are growing at rates not seen in years, according to industry data and analysts, as women snap up a variety of new styles, from peep-toe, red patent leather heels to chunky, multi-colored wedges.

"Footwear is red hot," said John Shanley, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group, adding that the last time he saw this level of interest in shoes was in 2000.

U.S. footwear sales at department stores totaled $42 billion in 2005, a 9 percent increase over the prior year, according to the NPD Group, marketing and sales info specialists.

After several years of deflation, the average price of a pair of shoes purchased at a department store is also climbing, up nearly 10 percent since 2004 to $46.59 as of March, NPD reports.

Shoes fell into a slump a decade ago, analysts and industry executives said, when they became too predictable. "They were either brown or black," said Steve Madden, whose company of the same name helped to revolutionize the business.

Taking a page from handbags, which saw huge sales and price increases when new styles and colors were added, shoe manufacturers began to inject their designs with more fashion, including textures, beading and woven leather.

Most of these design innovations were made possible by production advancements that shortened the time it took to get a shoe from the drawing board to market.

A key innovation was training overseas factory workers to use one assembly line for many functions instead of a single task. "Today, an assembly line can make up to 6,000 pairs of shoes a day, compared with 1,000 under the old system," said Joel Oblonsky, president of Nina Shoes.

Athletic giants Nike and Adidas drove much of this innovation by using their clout to speed production cycles. Though athletic and fashion shoes are made in different factories, some of the techniques were transferable.

Shoe manufacturers took advantage of the speedier production cycles by shipping the product to retailers on a monthly, rather than quarterly basis, allowing manufacturers to better adjust to trends.

This spring, for instance, Oblonsky noticed that wedges were popular, but worried that Nina's lineup didn't feature enough of the style. Within five weeks, he had a new multi-colored wedge on store shelves, something unthinkable a decade ago.

Changing consumer tastes also played a role in the recent shoe boom. Gone are the strict rules that dictated pointy shoes would be in one season and round-toes the next.

"The reason we're doing so well with shoes is that there are so many options today - it's not just about one style," said Russell Orlando, a fashion director in charge of accessories for Macy's East.

As a result, women are tending to buy multiple pairs of shoes at one time. That trend was extremely evident yesterday at Eric Shoes, a boutique on Madison Avenue, where a pair goes for $250 to $500.



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